I slogged my way through all five volumes of George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, because he managed to invoke my deep commitment to his characters. I cared about the Stark children and their doomed parents, Tyrion, the transformed Jaime…I cared even about his most despicable characters, reading on in the hopes of seeing them eventually crushed by the same indiscriminate heel of Fate that beheaded Ned Stark and orphaned Arya. The HBO series capitalizes on that keen and deep portrayal of character in its frequent use of tightly-written, superbly-acted, richly-costumed and beautifully-lit scenes of intimate conversation and revelation between two actors.
But I don’t think I can keep going anymore. I only got through the novels by simultaneously ignoring and loudly reviling the despicable and unrepentant treatment of women throughout. My husband nobly bore the brunt of this disgust every night, as I verbally abused the author for his misogyny and lack of accuracy. Yes, you heard me. I am accusing Martin himself (not his characters) of misogyny, and I am calling him out for his incomplete and inaccurate portrayal of women and gender relations in ANY moment in history, imagined or otherwise.
In a recent New York Times article (“For ‘Game of Thrones,’ Rising Unease Over Rape’s Recurring Role,” May 2, 2014), Martin is cited as claiming that “he had an obligation to tell the truth about history and about human nature.” Except that he doesn’t tell the truth. Yes, one thing he says is true: “rape and sexual violence have been a part of every war ever fought, from the ancient Sumerians to our present day.” But Martin’s depiction of sexual brutality is consistently limited, inaccurate and deeply-biased — making it his truth, perhaps, but nothing near the truth.
In his fiction, and now in the series, no one stands as witness to this horrific treatment of women, and that is where Martin’s vision and accuracy fail. Martin claims that “certain scenes are meant to be uncomfortable, disturbing, hard to read.” But that is not in fact what he either attempts or accomplishes as an artist. At most, his depiction of the rape, subjugation and abuse of women achieves a sort of background eroticism in his work, because it is perpetually mired in the perspective of the rapists and the bystanders. The experience and voices of the victims, the naysayers, the comforters, the survivors, the brothers and the sisters, the change-makers — these are almost entirely absent (with the occasional exception of Arya Stark, Jon Snow and Samwell Tarly).
Over the course of actual human history, people have borne witness to rape and brutality – -cradling their mothers’ torn bodies, comforting a brutalized boy, marching through college campuses with lit candles to Take Back the Night, standing over their children and saying: “NO! I will NOT let you hurt them.” How do I know this is true, even in those feudal times Martin claims to depict so accurately? If it were not, we would still be living in those times today. The world that Game of Thrones represents holds no possibility of transformation, no one as witness to the things that must change — because they are too cruel, brutal and inhuman to survive against the collective will of humanity.
Will I boycott the show? Decline to buy the next book in the series? I don’t know. I am drawn to these characters and their destinies. There is no doubt that Martin has me hooked. In spite of my instincts, I have continued to read and to watch so far. To find out what happens next, to remain connected to these characters about whom I have come to care, I will probably squelch that inner recoil, swallow the bile, and keep going back for more. And in this way Martin with his art has replicated exactly the experience of rape itself: the confusion, the mixed allegiance, the blurring of self-protective boundaries and yes, the arousal, that occur when someone — usually someone we know and love — abuses us. The HBO writers and directors perpetuating this rape may read this blog and others, and perhaps tone it down a bit, just enough to keep us coming back for more — precisely as child molesters groom their victims, creeping past boundaries only to destroy them from the inside out.
When we consider rape as a society, every rapist — actual or imagined — is our father and our brother and our self, and every victim is our mother and our sister…ourself. Martin and his artistic partners at HBO are raping all of us, and we are allowing it. It won’t stop until we say no, walk away, and hold them — and ourselves — accountable.